The Supreme Court’s decision in Groff v. Dejoy is a consequential case for employers facing religious accommodation requests. The Court held that an employer facing such requests does not need to follow the “undue hardship” analysis required by the Americans with Disabilities Act, but if the employer denies the request, they still must articulate some additional harm to their business beyond impacts on co-workers and scheduling. Courts are likely to extend this new standard to other protected characteristics, such as dreadlocks or head coverings.
Mr. Groff was a rural mail carrier with the United States Postal Service in east-central Pennsylvania. Rural mail carriers are required to provide relief functions to regular mail carriers and deliver mail during the weekend. With the rise of online shopping, the need for rural mail carriers to be present and ready to work on their assigned shifts is paramount.
Mr. Groff held a sincerely held religious belief that he should not perform work on Sunday, his Sabbath day. The local postmaster for Mr. Groff’s area attempted to provide accommodations to Mr. Groff through “shift swapping” and moving him to another, albeit less desirable, post. Mr. Groff’s coworkers began to voice concerns about Mr. Groff’s accommodations, as it required them to work more shifts. At one point, one of Mr. Groff’s co-workers went out on medical leave, further reducing the number of individuals who could cover Mr. Groff’s shifts. Mr. Groff began to accrue absences and workplace discipline for not reporting to his assigned shifts—all on Sundays. The postmaster was forced to deliver mail when Mr. Groff failed to report to work. The USPS terminated Mr. Groff’s employment based on those absences.
Mr. Groff sued USPS under Title VII. He claimed that USPS failed to accommodate his religious beliefs of keeping Sabbath on Sunday, including not performing work. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of USPS, and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. A prior Supreme Court opinion, Trans World Airlines v. Hardison, suggested that an employer did not have to accommodate religious preferences if there was a more than “de minimus” cost or hardship. The Third Circuit found that the USPS had established a more than “de minimus” cost from Mr. Groff’s absences and that Mr. Groff failed to meet the legitimate expectations of the USPS as a result.
The Supreme Court granted Mr. Groff’s certiorari petition to determine what the proper standard should be for religious accommodations. A number of commentators took that as a sign that the Court intended to overrule Hardison and establish the stricter “undue hardship” standard typical in ADA accommodation cases.
But the Court did not do so. On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a decision that “clarified” that its Hardison holding required the employer to look at the impact of a religious accommodation request on the entirety of the business. This means that impacts on other employees are not sufficient to deny a religious accommodation (or other accommodation under Title VII). An employer must articulate some other effect on its business. However, the Court also declined to adopt the more rigorous scheme under the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires an employer to show “undue hardship” from an accommodation request. The Court then suggested that existing EEOC guidance will fill in the gaps until federal district and circuit courts hear more Title VII accommodation cases.
The Supreme Court remanded Mr. Groff’s case to the Third Circuit to determine whether the USPS articulated operational harm beyond impacts on Mr. Groff’s former coworkers.
While the ultimate outcome of Mr. Groff’s case has yet to be seen, employers should take note of several lessons from the Supreme Court’s decision. An employer is not shielded from potential liability simply because a Title VII accommodation request creates staffing issues. Further, an employer could meet the new standard, for example, by demonstrating staffing issues and lost profitability. Lastly, although not required, certainly an employer that can meet the stricter “undue hardship” ADA framework will be able to defeat Title VII accommodation claims.